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Review of  Intercultural Communication

Reviewer: Leonhard A. Voltmer
Book Title: Intercultural Communication
Book Author: Adrian Holliday Martin Hyde John Kullman
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 16.3585

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Date: Fri, 09 Dec 2005 18:12:16 +0100
From: Leonhard Voltmer
Subject: Intercultural Communication

AUTHOR: Holliday, Adrian; Hyde, Martin; Kullman, John
TITLE: Intercultural Communication
SUBTITLE: An advanced resource book
SERIES: Routledge Applied Linguistics
PUBLISHER: Routledge
YEAR: 2004

Leonhard A. G. Voltmer, School of Translators and Interpreters,
University of Bologna at Forlì


This ''advanced resource book'' targets upper undergraduates and
postgraduates on communication studies programmes. It is ultimately
about developing skilled communication strategies and principles in a
globalizing world.

The book is structured, like the other books in the series, in three
main sections, each made up of approximately ten units. Every section
features the three themes ''Identity'', ''Otherization''
and ''Representation''. Section A defines concepts, i.e. it presents a
variety of definitions for the core ideas and gives extensive examples
in which the concepts shine through. Section B explores these
concepts further with a series of extensive quotations of usually
scholarly writings of the 1990s. As there are some negative or dubious
examples, the authors comment on the texts and encourage the
student to reflect upon them through numerous tasks. This section
makes out about half of the book (page 51-146 out of 213 pages).
Section C proposes a series of research tasks and establishes a
methodology for addressing intercultural communication.


As to form, the quotations in section B are in very small grey font and
require therefore an excellent eye. The references are mainly from the
90s and not abundant. Unfortunately the cited literature appears only
summarily and never indicates the page number, so that it is nearly
impossible to check the statements in the book. Even worse, the
extensively quoted scholars in section B do not figure in the
references, and neither do the titles quoted in the quotations
(although name and year is given in the text). For a book that is
intended to be read across the sections, this is actually a considerable
advantage (e.g. p. 146 quotes Triandis. Not being in the bibliography,
you have to go back to p. 142 to find the reference. There, the text is
quoted in ''extracts'', without dots indicating the omitted text.)

The authors of this book subscribe to a non-essentialist view of
culture, as opposed to an essentialist view. The largest part of the
book is an apt criticism of a simple ''one nation-one language-one
culture'' ideology. However, arguments are much less convincing
when the new paradigm, the non-essentialist view, is defined. As the
name points out, the concept was coined in opposition. ''People in one
culture are'' not ''essentially different from people in another'' and
there are ''a lot of cultural similarities'' (p.4). This suggests that the
concept of 'culture' remains basically the same and only the
perception of its intermingling is different: essentialists deny
multiculturalism and are against it, while non-essentialists detect and
welcome it. In this direction go the declarations in section C: ''[T]his is
not to say that the issue of cultural difference can be hypothesized
away. People ... belong to distinct cultural groups which
promote 'distinctive capacities and characteristics'. If this were not a
reality then there would be no such thing as culture and there would
be no need to study 'intercultural communication''' (p.159).

What is then the point of non-essentialism, if culture actually is a hard
fact of life with a distinctive content and a name? The criticism of the
concept would boil down to a criticism of the (still?) predominant
discourse. The same concept filled with other contents: The
uncivilized becomes the noble primitive.

In sections A and B the two authors of take a more radical stance: For
them, the essentialists ''define the person before understanding the
person'', whereas ''the non-essentialist strategy is a moral one to do
with how we approach and learn about a person as a human being''
(p. 10). They rebuke even the weaker essentialist position, i.e. the
forming of ideal types that act as a template and help us to make
working assumptions about the 'default value' of the majority, being
well aware that this will be wrong in some cases. They argue that ''we
do not behave sufficiently rational in intercultural dealings to be able
to work objectively with such templates''. (p. 23) People interpret new
information in the light of the default values, and reduce the
complexity of the new information up to the point that already on the
level of perception confirming information is memorized and competing
information blended out -- a well described process in cognitive

A general rule might very well ascribe correctly a certain trait to a
number of strangers, and nevertheless we may not use that rule,
because it is crying injustice for 20 % of them. Here we are in the
presence of a new paradigm, because the goal is not anymore
inductive information, but politically correct information. The social
sciences are left for deontology.

This is anti-discrimination in all respects and all its consequences, but
are we in the field of justice? Intercultural communication is about
social relations, and those should be as just as possible. If so, are we
rather in the field of the legislator who works with rules, or before the
court where every man comes as innocent before us? The theory of
intercultural communication should guide us in the practice of the
encounter with other individuals, so it is also about doing justice to the
person before us. But there are difficulties: schemas are
psychologically inevitable (p. 198) but must never harden. And
ethology teaches that humans tend to expel or tease outsiders,
because group homogeneity has under certain circumstances a
selective advantage (Eibl-Eibesfeldt 2004, p. 533). Therefore, if we
want to become non-essentialists, we have to fight actively the
impulse to look down on outsiders. We have to deconstruct the
situation, step in the shoes of the individual before us and gather
a ''thick description'' (p. 8). This is the moral and idealistic
commandment of the book.

But is there still place for the concept of 'culture'? It is very well to
substitute the stereotype of cultures clashing with a complex picture of
cultures melting into each other on contact. But how can we then
define the essence of a group and distinguish group capacities and
characteristics, either conceptually or in examples? In the book, all
generalizing equals 'otherization'. Otherization is defined
as ''imagining someone as alien and different to 'us' in such a way
that 'they' are excluded from 'our' 'normal', 'superior' and 'civilized'
group'' (p.3). The authors quote extensively examples for otherization
from literature, science and popular culture (cartoons,
advertisements), and from colonialist times to our days. The reader is
urged very intelligently to deconstruct the underlying ideology. But
if ''culture is basically a group phenomenon which interacts with
individual identity'' (p. 152), what group is not excluding and

We all agree with the authors that we have to ''avoid the trap of over-
generalization'' (p. 3), but in the book any generalization and theory-
building is pictured as a trap. The authors succeed in making the
reader very attentive to generalization in all forms, so that even the
book itself could be criticized in some passages out of its own
instruments (e.g. p. 181, Example C2.1.1 reports the situation in very
essentialist terms; p. 28 ''out of character'' presupposes a 'true'
character that can be in opposition to 'superficial' cultural influences;
on p. 193 the authors otherize a critic of Irish in schools, insinuating
that he cannot appreciate the Irish language as a consequence of his
religion, and not out of his agent quality and autonomous reasoning
based on personal experience.).

Without doubt the book teaches the reader to be more attentive and
critical towards essentialism, and this is the great achievement of this
book. But in some cases the authors go also too far: They sustain on
p.186 that it is 'Languacism' (i.e. stereotyping people according to
their language use) when we take incorrect pronunciation (pronounce
the ''th''-sound as ''f'' for example) as marker for less education.
Sociolinguists find a correlation between language standardization
and higher education, to name only one thing. Nothing is said about
cause relation, and it may be society's fault that some get excluded
both from education and language norms. And of course, there are
special cases, e.g. when people have another mother-language and
are highly educated in another social context. Still, as a rule (or
stereotype?), linguistic competences are a meaningful indicator for the
time passed in the English education system. To state that fact is not
politically incorrect, it is social science. But for the authors, who are
talking about morals, it is, because of the close connection between
stereotyping, prejudice and otherization (p. 23). There is no reflection
of the censorship their stance imposes. For further development of
this argument refer to the criticism of political correctness.

The great virtue of the book is that it incites reflection about those
almost philosophical questions. It is a bit confusing to find several
views instead of one solution. But the real defect of the book is that
the authors do not share the main concepts and their writing becomes
incoherent and sometimes contradictory. Still, it is a recommendable
book, because it leads to the core of the problems in intercultural
communication and provides new insights.

One way out of the philosophical dilemma might come from the
intriguing metaphor of ''culture cards'' (p.166). Everybody holds a set
of culture cards standing for a group membership. ''Some of these
cards you cannot change but others you can gain, get rid of, or
change, and indeed play.'' (p.166). In this way, the world is not made
out of solipsistic individuals in constant need of personal encounter,
but of multi-group (multicultural) persons. Membership in a culture
becomes something positive in this metaphor, and instead of reducing
the other to an alien, it ascribes an asset. As those culture cards are
so many, you can be almost sure that you are always able to hold
some cards in common. When you play the common cards, you
strengthen both yourself and the other, you have found the right
channel for communication. Intercultural communication is then not the
science of (cultural) difference, but of finding common (cultural)


Eibl-Eibesfeldt, Irenäus (2004): Grundriß der vergleichenden
Verhaltensforschung, 8th ed., BuchVertrieb Blandk, Vierkirchen-

Leonhard A. G. Voltmer is jurilinguist. He studied law in Munich and
Paris, Legal Theory in Brussels and Lund, and Romance Languages
in Salzburg and Munich. From 2001 to 2005 he was working for the
European Academy of Bolzano (Italy) in terminology, translation and
language normation. The experiences in computer-linguistic treatment
of multilingual legal data have become a Ph.D. thesis at the University
of Munich (, which
was awarded a magna cum laude. Dr. Voltmer is increasingly involved
in lecturing and has given courses for all ages. In 2005/06 he is
teaching German in Intercultural Mediation (University of Trento) and
for the School of Translators and Interpreters (SSIT) at Forli. Dr.
Voltmer's research agenda focuses on the combination of disciplines
and discourses: The dialogue between cultures (Intercultural
Communication or Mediation), between lawyers and laymen, between
computer-linguists and language practitioners, and between the
different scientific disciplines in Legal Theory. For more details, visit
his website at:

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